“And the world’s gonna know your name…” Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the name Alexander Hamilton has been firmly reestablished in the American consciousness – and is steadily taking the world by storm, with London’s West End the latest opening for hit musical Hamilton. After a bit of a delay, the show has now officially opened at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre.
Alexander Hamilton was one of America’s founding fathers, though his story has remained largely untold over the years. Coming from humble origins, he moved to New York to study – but then revolution comes calling and Hamilton finds himself in the middle of the fight for independence from British rule, ending up as General Washington’s right hand man. Following a successful military campaign, he returns to New York to be a lawyer (and to be at his wife’s side), though before long he was invited to take a position in government as Washington (now President) finds himself in need of his services once again. Hamilton is a popular man, but his stubbornness and arrogance do create some simmering rivalries along the way – will this be his downfall?
The show is almost entirely rapped and sung through (the Broadway cast recording is practically the whole show – Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us is left out as Miranda considered it more of a scene than a song); sometimes this approach can be troublesome, as it can lead to odd sung conversations, or mean that the storytelling is sacrificed just to fit it all into song. This is where the choice of genre works absolutely brilliantly; rap straddles the border between talking and singing, so interactions feel completely natural. It also takes off the pressure to rhyme, as it’s recognisably in verse, as well as making every rhyme seem completely at home. You also can’t ignore the fact that it’s bound to engage with a new audience, and perhaps get more people interested in theatre.
Before seeing the show, I saw the main challenge being whether a figure from American history could be engaging enough – and if the storytelling was up to scratch for someone seeing it completely out of context and with no background information. I can safely say that it easily stands up to this test (having shielded myself from anything at all Hamilton related), and the delayed gratification is a feeling I wouldn’t change if I could go back and do it all again. And whilst the story may centre on a country trying to rid themselves of British power, that doesn’t mean it can’t have relevance for we Brits too – for one thing, I’d say it speaks to a growing number of people who feel the time is right to abolish the monarchy. And it’s also a classic underdog story, which is something we have significant experience of.
A fair amount of dramatic licence has been taken with the plot, but that never did someone like Shakespeare any harm, did it? I think it is acceptable to mention Miranda and the Bard in the same breath, as they are both absolute revolutionaries in their respective fields.
The set design is simple, taking place in what looks like an old warehouse – but when you have material this good, elaborate sets would just be a distraction. Instead, good use is made of the levels and also a seamless revolve. David Korins’ design works hand-in-hand with Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, and the end result is a production that’s brimming with dynamism and innovation.
It is visually stunning, partly thanks to the choreography, but also because of the vibrant costume design (Paul Tazewell). In spite of the genre of music, the show sticks with the traditional period dress (late 18th/early 19th century) – this creates a bold contrast with both the backdrop and the music, but never feels out of place.
This is partly down to the fantastic company that has been assembled, all of whom have incredible commitment that really animates the show. It is also brilliant to see more diversity on such a prominent platform, including some whose careers are in their infancy getting such a big break.
No one quite manages a mad monarch like a Brit – and you couldn’t ask for any more from Michael Jibson in his turn as King George! Despite the brevity of his stage time, he makes a full and lasting impact in the role (as the pre-show announcement states, it is his show after all), bringing a truly maniacal ruler to vivid life. Jibson doesn’t shy away from audience interaction either, singling out “subjects” for special focus.
Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John are truly knockout as two leading ladies, sisters Elizabeth (Eliza) and Angelica Schuyler. Their vocals are superb; full of soul and spirit, they easily balance out the very male world (“And when I meet Thomas Jefferson… I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”) with their confidence and protofeminist stance. They really are the heart of Hamilton.
Jason Pennycooke masterfully takes on two key supporting roles: Hamilton’s friend and ally the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hamilton’s political rival Thomas Jefferson. Both are fairly flamboyant personalities (note both of their entrance numbers), but Pennycooke easily makes two distinct characters in each act – you almost wouldn’t believe it was the same person behind them. Both end up likeable, in spite of Jefferson’s antagonism towards Hamilton, in part thanks to Pennycooke’s knack for finding the comedy.
Aaron Burr lives in Hamilton’s shadow for most of their acquaintance, much to his disappointment, and narrates reasonable chunks of the show. I’m not sure you could find anyone more suited to this than Giles Terera. He prowls, cat-like, around the stage, always watching and subscribing to his character’s mantra: “Talk less, smile more.” Terera exudes charisma, making The Room Where It Happens a proper standout showstopper of a number.
Taking on the monumental task of the eponymous role is a relative newcomer, RADA graduate Jamael Westman. This would be the chance of a lifetime for anyone, but the fact that this is only Westman’s third professional credit makes it even more of a fairytale. From the moment he makes his first (highly anticipated) appearance in the opening song, his presence is assured and commanding – Westman is an absolute natural in the role. The words trip off his tongue as if they were his own, and he takes Hamilton on a rollercoaster ride from cocky newbie to heartbroken father with great ease. Definitely one to watch.
My verdict? A top-class transfer of an all-American musical, spreading Alexander Hamilton’s story ever further – you won’t want to miss your shot to be in the room where it happens!